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San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2010, Paul Premack
March 19, 2010

Lady Bird Deed not just for Medicaid

Dear Mr. Premack: My mother signed a deed transferring her home to us (her children) and retaining a life estate for herself. She also retained the right to change her mind and take back ownership of the house. She recently died, and left the deed unchanged (she never took back ownership). Do we need to probate her Will before we can sell the house? The life estate deed was drawn up by her lawyer in Houston. – NG
The type of deed you describe is sometimes called an “enhanced life estate” or a “lady bird deed”. The myth is that Lady Bird Johnson once used a similar arrangement, and even though no one has been able to validate that theory, the name has stuck.
Lady Bird deeds are used most often when the homeowner might need to qualify for Medicaid benefits, and desires to shelter the home from an estate recovery claim after her death. The legalities behind this concept are complex, but at least for now this technique works to preserve the house for the surviving family members.
Medicaid aside, there are other benefits to a Lady Bird deed. First, the holder of the life estate (your mother) may continue to treat the property as her homestead. Her local property taxes will not go up because the transfer to the children is effective only upon her death.  
Second, the holder of the life estate will not have to pay any gift tax on the transfer, because the retained right to take back ownership zeros out the value of the gift. If she decides to rescind the transaction, the kids receive nothing. If she leaves it alone until the moment of her death the children are technically inheriting the property, not receiving it as a gift.
Third, and to the point of your question, so long as the right to rescind is not exercised then immediately upon the death of the life estate holder, the children own the home outright. Probate is not necessary to establish their claim to ownership. Instead, they can simple present to the purchaser (and the title company that will be insuring the transaction) a copy of the Lady Bird deed and a certified copy of the death certificate.
If they were not planning to sell the house, then I would recommend that a proper legal Affidavit be filed with the County Clerk’s real property records. The Affidavit would state that the holder of the life estate (mother) has died, and that consequently the children should be treated as owners of the property. A copy of the Affidavit (and the deed and death certificate if necessary) could be presented to the local Appraisal District to have the tax account changed over to the children’s names as the new owners.
Dear Mr. Premack: I looked through your column archives at and did not find an article that addressed my question. Can a nursing resident who receives Medicaid gift or transfer her home to one of her children (61 years old and receives SSDI) without impacting either of their benefit situations? Thank you. -- BLW
SSDI stands for Social Security Disability Insurance, which is a benefit for disabled adults who qualify under the federal rules. Medicaid is a different program, which in this context is providing nursing home care to an impoverished senior citizen.
Ordinarily a Medicaid beneficiary would be disqualified from receiving continued aid if she transferred title to the home to anyone (including one of the children). The beneficiary is allowed to continue owning the house so that she will have a place to go if her health improves. If she decided not to keep the house for that purpose, then transferring it to anyone else creates a penalty period during which she cannot receive Medicaid benefits.
There are, however, a few explicit exceptions to that rule. One of them is this: if the house is transferred to a child (of any age) determined to be disabled under the Social Security rules, there is no penalty. In this case, your mother could transfer the house to her disabled daughter and still retain her Medicaid benefits. And since SSDI does not use its beneficiary’s resources as a measure of whether or not benefits will continue, becoming owner of the home will not negatively impact her disabled daughter.

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Disclaimer: This column answers a specific legal question asked by an individual in Texas. The answer may or may not match your individual situation. Be careful not to treat this column as specific legal advice, as it may not meet your individual needs. It may give you a solid basis for discussion with your own attorney.  You should consult with your personal attorney before you take any action on this or any legal issue. Also, please be aware that laws change, so  this column is valid only as of the date it was published. This communication does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader.


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